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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Built-in Flexibility and Creativity (Rosh Hashanah 32a)

For those who feel Judaism is excessively rigid and rituals are overly prescribed, the passage on Rosh Hashanah 32a might just be a breath of fresh air. Here the Rabbis discuss the liturgy of the shofar service that is part of Rosh Hashanah Musaf. They enumerate several possibilities for the liturgy, as well as suggest numerous ways to think about meaning of the shofar blasts. In the end, they do not prescribe, leaving wonderful wiggle room and an open door for us to enter into their world of possibilities and innovate our own. What could more in keeping with the theme of a new year than to contemplate new possibilties of meaning?

The Shofar service of Musaf features three themes:
  1. Malkhuyot (God’s sovereignty)
  2. Zichronot (Remembrances)
  3. Shofarot (Revelation)
The Mishnah on Rosh Hashanah 32a informs us that we should recite no fewer than 10 verses of Scripture in connection with each of the three themes. However, R. Yochanan b. Nuri says that if one recites only three verses in connection with each theme, that person has fulfilled his/her obligation.

As the conversation in the gemara unfolds, however, there are more considerations and several options. Perhaps the background here is that Jewish tradition around the shofar service liturgy has not yet gelled. Perhaps this is an arena where gemara builds flexibility into tradition.

The gemara first asks why we recite 10 verses. R. Levi says they correspond to 10 expressions of praise in Psalm 150. Rav Yosef claims they correspond to the Ten Commandments. R. Yochanan suggests they correspond to the 10 utterances with which the world was created (Genesis, chapter 1). These rationales – praising God, obligations toward God, and Creation – correspond to the three themes themselves. Rosh Hashanah is an annual celebration of God’s coronation and hence praise is utterly fitting for the sovereign of the universe -- Malkhuyot. Zichronot recalls when shofarot were blown at the revelation at Mt. Sinai and verses recalling the Ten Commandments and our obligations to God as expressed in Torah are fitting. Shofarot harkens to a future time when the shofar of redemption will sound to herald a new Creation.

Gemara next explores the difference between the Mishnah’s opinion, and that of R. Yochanan b. Nuri. Perhaps R. Yochanan b. Nuri means three verses each from Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings) for each of the three themes? If so, his total comes to nine, only one less than the tanna kamma (Mishnah’s original opinion). But if R. Yochanan b. Nuri intended a total of three verses – one each from Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim – then the difference between the two opinions is considerably greater.

Gemara attempts to resolve this by saying that while a minimum of 10 verses for each theme is required, one who recited seven verses for each has fulfilled his/her obligation, because seven corresponds to the seven heavens, and cites no less than R. Yochanan b. Nuri as the source for saying, one who minimizes should recite no fewer than seven verses, but if one recited only three verses for each [theme], corresponding to the Torah, Prophets, and Writings – and some say corresponding to the Kohanim (priests), Levites, and Israelites.

It seems clear that the precise number of verses is not yet fixed as this text is written, and the Rabbis are looking for a rationale for setting the number. To summarize, they offer explanations for 10, 7, and 3 verses:

10 –
expressions of praise in Psalm 150
10 Commandments
10 utterances of creation
seven heavens

Torah, Prophets, Writings
Kohanim, Levites, Israelites
These rationales invite us to consider the sound of the shofar in many religious contexts:
  • among a community of worshipers that places a premium on the peoplehood or nation of Israel (Kohanim, Levi’im, Ketuvim) who are united around sacred texts (Torah, Prophets, and Writings) and the traditions and obligations that arise from them;
  • among a community of worshipers acknowledging God’s sovereignty in their personal and communal life;
  • among a community of worshipers acknowledging God as the Creator of the universe, the author of life and health who has brought us as far as this new year and hopefully will keep us alive to see the next new year;
  • among a community of worshipers acknowledging God as the God of the cosmos who abides not only in our presence but in the Seventh Heaven, the God who’s oneness unifies all.
This passage has the effect of encouraging us to explore many options for finding meaning in the sound of the shofar and for structuring a service – which can change from year to year – to express that meaning.

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